Four key trends from the FIPP World Media Congress 2023

I could get used to spending a part of every June in Cascais. The FIPP World Media Congress once again took place in this genteel resort, just up the coast from the incomparable Lisbon. 

If you haven’t been to Portugal’s higgledy-piggledy, un-war-damaged, coffee-soaked capital that spreads like waves over seven hills overlooking the Atlantic, then you really must go. And Cascais is where its well-heeled citizens go to dip their toes in the ocean.

I digress. FIPP is mostly about magazines and it was heartening to hear such focused and forward-looking debates both in the official sessions – two of which I was privileged to chair – and afterwards over grilled fish.

Here are four key themes I picked up:

1 Fight for the value of your content 

Amazingly, nobody wanted to talk about AI … 

Just kidding. To a degree, it was all anyone wanted to talk about. 

James Hewes, FIPP’s president and CEO, set the debate rolling in his opening address when he noted that in the many and multifarious debates about generative AI, publishers should remember that “the input data for the AI models is our content”. 

Juan Señor, editor of the Innovation in Media 2023 World Report, which was released at the congress, was punchy in how he suggested publishers deal with this fact. “We need to block the bots scraping our content,” he said. “Spotify has done it, Hollywood has done it, Getty has done it. We must too.”

He added though that publishers should lean into this moment because “generative AI is not about digital transformation but the transformation of digital”. 

While there has been a lot of talk about the industry being “digital-first” or “social-first” and so on, now is the time, he said, for “AI-first media companies. We don’t want to miss this train like we did – many of us – with social, mobile and search.”

So what to do? Understand the technology, and its limitations, set guidelines for how you are going to use it, experiment like crazy, and fight for the value of your content. Do all of this while knowing that AI (for now, at least) cannot do revelatory journalism like a human can, which is at least some consolation in uncertain times.

2 Thinking smaller might be the route to success

Jacob Donnelly, the publisher of Morning Brew and writer of (the highly recommended) A Media Operator newsletter, is guaranteed to be thought-provoking on general issues of strategy. 

His challenge to those present was simple: “Unless you are The New York Times, you won’t succeed unless you have a very clear idea of who your customer is. Know who they are and you have a good business – and that’s niche.”

I’ve been banging this drum for a while now, but I like the way he expressed it in terms of customer centricity. 

He pointed out that the recent travails of Buzzfeed and Vice were partly because they were focused too much on top-line revenue growth rather than whether their customers actually wanted what they were producing. “You have to work out how to be sustainable,” he said. “You don’t want to be on the hamster wheel of raising money.”

Jacob was more sanguine on the future of smaller newspapers than bigger ones, who lost their geographically based monopolies when the internet came along. The former, he believes, “can survive if they stop trying to go bigger but go smaller instead”. Focus on what your customers want and what you can deliver to them that nobody else can.”

This was a theme I heard when I interviewed Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau, president and ceo of MIT Technology Review (and – full disclosure – a client of ours), on stage in Cascais. She talked about how they are seeing the benefits of technology of all kinds moving higher up the interest charts and readers wanting the very specific expertise her publication offers. “I mean, they can trust us on AI – we’ve been writing about it for 18 to 20 years,” she said.

3 If you’re going to pivot, pivot big

Jens Müffelmann’s talk started ominously. While newspapers and book publishers got digital right in the end, the executive chairman of Bonnier in the US said: “There is no example of a popular lifestyle magazine that has successfully transformed to digital.”

But then he outlined how two Bonnier titles had made a really good fist of it by pivoting hard. 

First, Working Mother magazine moved from journalism to providing solutions around diversity, equity and inclusion, inspired by the progress still to be made in giving working mothers the success in the workplace they deserve. Rebranding the business as Seramount, it offered events, reports and digital solutions (around licensing and syndication primarily) which performed so well that Bonnier ended up selling the business to EAB, a successful education-based company.

Then they took Marlin, a sports fishing magazine, and moved away from its declining circulation and ads business, towards tournaments and fishing-based expeditions. Instead of “selling a magazine for $10” it is now running competitions with purses totalling $2.1m in 18 countries and sends fishing expeditions worldwide. Revenues for Marlin are up 93% from 2020-2022.

The key, he said, was knowing that you wouldn’t get these pivots right first time, but embracing “trial and error to figure out what works”.

4 Digital subs will work for magazines

Last year’s congress was for me marked by people starting to think about digital subscriptions, but not really diving in yet. This year that had changed and the conversations had evolved. It wasn’t “should we offer subscriptions?” but rather “how can we make subscriptions work for us?”

Jonny Kaldor, ceo of Pugpig, gave an entertaining talk about trends he had noticed in how publishers were trying to retain subscribers, whether they be Lovers, Friends, Ghosts (“we see them once but never again”) or Zombies. No 1 answer: have a great product – which I agree is something too often neglected by those who have a near-mystical faith in the magic of their journalism.

We spoke afterwards about how it feels inevitable that US regulators will make publishers wake up their Zombies, the subscribers who never access their products, and how that would be an apocalypse for many.

Kerin O’Connor, formerly of The Week, talked about how aligning a business around customer lifetime value could make subscriptions work for all parts of a publishing organisation, by allowing them at last to chase the same target. And Reid DeRamus, head of growth at Substack, told me on stage how he detected the early signs of a shift from an ad-based internet to one dominated by many small subscriptions. 

All in all, the atmosphere was positive. The underlying message was that distinctive journalism, based on what customers want, has a bright future, whatever technology challenges are thrown at publishers.

Thanks to James Hewes at FIPP and Cobus Heyl and John Schlaefli at Di5rupt, the conference organisers, for putting on such a good programme.

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